Archaeologists are piecing together the real-life tragedy of a 13-year-old girl chosen as a gift to the gods, who was killed more than five centuries ago on the summit of a sacred four-mile-high mountain in South America.
By pioneering a remarkable bio-chemical analytical process to extract data from her hair, British scientists have been able to trace the nature of her food and drink consumption over the final 24 months of her life.
Much of the key data was revealed yesterday in the US scientific journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), augmenting other data from the same research team, published six years ago.
"We have been able to quite literally unlock history from her hair, giving voice to a very personal account of what happened to her," said Dr. Andrew Wilson of the University of Bradford who has been leading the scientific research.
The hair analysis and other evidence reveals, for the first time, the treatment of human sacrificial victims from the moment of selection to the point of death. It reveals how the teenager was given a natural stimulant and substantial quantities of alcohol.
Her tragic story may well have begun not far from where she was ultimately sacrificed in what is today a mountainous area of north-west Argentina. It was an area that had been conquered by the Inca Empire in the second half of the 15 century.
The Incas and indeed some earlier South American civilizations believed that agricultural fertility – and prosperity and success in general – relied, at least in part, on ensuring divine help by making human sacrifices to the gods. It is thought that throughout Inca history tens of thousands of such sacrifices were carried out.
Periodically, substantial numbers of children were selected for imperial service by local Inca officials and sent to the empire’s capital Cusco in what is now Peru. There, further selection processes took place in which some, males as well as females, were allocated to the emperor as servants and retainers.
Many of the girls were given as wives to members of the Inca elite or were allocated to religious institutions as trainee priestesses. But others (boys as well as girls) – physically the most perfect individuals with no physical blemishes – were selected for sacrifice.
The scientific analysis of the teenager’s hair suggests the possibility that the first part of the selection procedure, earmarking her for some form of imperial service, took place exactly a year before her eventual sacrifice. For the analysis revealed that her diet changed abruptly from a peasant one to a meat and maize one, normally associated with the Inca elite.
The latest research reveals that she also started consuming considerable quantities of the mild Andean stimulant coca (from which cocaine is now extracted). Significantly her coca - and alcohol – consumption rose temporarily six months before her sacrifice, almost certainly at some major Inca ceremony.
It is conceivable that it was at or shortly before this event (potentially the Inca winter solstice festival of Inti Raymi) that the second part of the selection procedure occurred in which she was chosen for eventual sacrifice. For at that ceremony the research shows that a small portion of her hair was removed. Indeed the shorn hair was ultimately buried with her in her mountain-top sacrificial tomb. In Inca culture, key transformations (for instance the elevation to full human status at the age of three) were marked by a ritualized haircut.
As the time earmarked for her sacrifice approached, she was plied with increased amounts of coca and large quantities of alcohol – almost certainly in the form of maize beer (up to 20 per cent alcoholic content). The University of Bradford scientists, analysing her hair, identified evidence that her alcohol intake rose five-fold in the four to six weeks prior to her sacrifice.
Certainly the alcohol would have dulled any feelings of apprehension she might have felt about her impending fate. This increase in alcohol supply seems to have occurred as she was taken – probably in a litter – back to what may well have been her native land and to the mountain she would die on.
Finally (conceivably at Capac Raymi, the summer solstice), exactly a year after the selection process had begun, she reached the foot of the sacred mountain – Vulcan Llullaillaco. Probably still in her litter, she made the ascent, accompanied by priests and other officials along a special ritual road, built by Inca engineers.
The trek up the mountain would have taken at least one and a half days – and the party would have probably overnighted at a way-station.
At last, the moment arrived. Almost certainly weakened by altitude sickness, alcohol and fatigue, the 13 year old, wearing a brown dress and a magnificent headdress, was taken to the summit and killed (either by smothering, strangulation or exposure to the elements).
Her body was interred in a specially prepared grave. It would be five long-centuries before her corpse – mummified by the intensely cold conditions of the mountain-top – would be found in 1999 by US, Peruvian and Argentine archaeologists investigating the sacrificial legacy of the Incas. The subsequent scientific investigation is only now yielding up the secrets of her tragic fate.